By Mike Gustafson//Correspondent
Each month, as part of our “Trials and Tribulations” series, we’ll give you an inside look at an Olympic Trials qualifier. If you have a story to share, please email Trials.Tribulations.firstname.lastname@example.org.
Last week we met Joe Pascale, the Curl-Burke swimmer and occasional MMA warrior who is chasing his Olympic Trials dream. He stands at a formidable 6-foot-6-inches tall and weighs 230lbs. However, Joe’s most noticeable physical characteristic is a gigantic, Abe Lincoln-esque beard that may (by now) be touching the floor. It’s monstrous. Joe could be, upon first glance, one of the most intimidating sprinters in swimming history. This week, I talk to Joe about that beard. I even have a conversation with the beard. Yes. The beard talks. And it has a name.
Were you always this physically “large”?
I was scrawny like a string bean. When I graduated I was 6’4’’ and was 180lbs. I grew two inches in college and I remember when, on my recruiting trip to Auburn, I met the strength coach P.K. He looked me up and down and said, “20 pounds will do,” and walked away. [Laughs]. College food. Mess hall food. I was always eating.
You’re one big dude. Did you play other sports growing up?
I’m terrible in basketball. I have a mean jump, I will say that. There’s a YouTube clip out there. I clear a 51-inch box jump. That’s what. 4 feet? I would love to go back to football. I loved playing DE in high school.
You didn’t want to play in college?
My dad is a football coach and he hated the fact we played football. He always wanted me to do well in swimming. He has too many buddies with bad knees. Buddies who have gone through multiple surgeries. Friends with Alzheimer’s too early in life from getting hit in the heads too many times. No parent wants to see a kid injured. I had a hidden talent – swimming was the best sport I could do.
Okay, let’s get to the beard. How did this happen?
People think I’m a schizophrenic. What I say is, if he’s real, how can I be a schizophrenic? He’s real. He’s a real entity.
“He”? You’re talking about your beard?
You’ve named him, didn’t you?
Papa Legba. Do you want to talk to him?
Absolutely. Papa, [laughter] how did you start growing on Joe’s face?
He says three squared meals a day. Bailing hay. Patience.
Papa speaks in Zen puzzles?
Yeah. Today all he was telling me was that he was majestically savage. I don’t know what that means. I just figured that it was his way of saying he was awesome.
Does Papa affect your training?
I don’t get a rash at all. Papa has been nothing but complete awesomeness. Yes, he does create a significant amount of drag in the water. Especially at the Missouri Grand Prix. In my goggles I could see my ‘stache waving around like seaweed in a current. I was thinking during my race, “This beard is big. Dude, you gotta sweet beard going.”
When will you shave it?
I’ll shave Legba in a very sad manner two weeks before Trials.
Just to get used to not having him around? Sidenote: I can’t believe I’m also calling him a “him.”
Papa and I came to an agreement, because he’s been with me so long: I will be putting him in a plastic bag on the pool deck and to Olympic Trials with me. He’s way better than Wilson [from “Cast Away”]. He’s part of me.
What about afterwards?
I’ll keep him until he re-grows again. It’s like an overlapping effect. Now listen, this beard has defined me. It will re-grow again. Next time I have the luxury to go beyond the year growth. This has been about – August? Seven months. I’ve only trimmed it one time.
What sort of feedback have you received about that beard on pool decks?
I had a kid come up to me and ask me to autograph his water bottle because of my beard. The Brazilian press was sneaking pictures of my beard. Even the guys on the national team, the Canadian Olympians, they were just like, “That’s a pretty awesome beard.” I was like appreciate it guys. Some girls were gawking over it. Usually girls think it’s a dead animal. That’s usually the reaction. Guys are like, “Man!” I’m like hey – the recipe is three square meals, bailing hay, and patience. Girls just ask me if it sinks.
Swimming is such a visible sport. Do you think being “different” with a huge, scary beard gives you a mental edge?
Yeah. When I get up on the blocks, or when I’m getting ready, I can tell the kids are like, “This guy looks like he’s going to eat me alive. I can’t compete with this guy.” In my mind, I tell Papa Legba, “I’m a man.” And he replies, “Yeah you are. Now get that W.”
What do you think you’ll think about when you first step onto the Olympic Trials deck?
I don’t really know. I don’t know how to prepare myself besides going to these Grand Prix meets. I know it’s going to be bigger than a national meet. But I guess, of course, I’m going to be nervous. I won’t find out until that day. I’ll have to adapt. Not worry about everyone else.
What has been the biggest thing you’ve overcome thus far in your journey?
I don’t want to ever think that I’ve overcame anything. That gives me more fuel. I still think I’m a slouch. So, the day I think that I think “I’m the best” is the day I’m probably not working that hard. I always want to keep in mind. I remind myself, “You’re nothing. You’re just another geek on the street.” And all the cockiness, that’s where Papa Legba comes from.
What advice do you have for kids looking to grow an equally awesome and formidable beard?
Don’t stop. Haters are going to hate. Trust me. I’ve had numerous people just tell me, “It can’t be done. You’re a joke.” When I started back into swimming tell me, “Are you kidding me? You can’t do this.” You gotta tell yourself, “You’ll show them. You’ll show them. Just get to practice, the hard work will pay off.”
Photos courtesy of MizzouRec